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Friday, December 26, 2003

Christ Is Born! We Now Return You to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming.

To most of us, Advent (or the "Christmas Season" as it's commonly known to those who don't celebrate liturgical seasons) is a time of giving. As we fly around town buying gifts to give and foods to prepare, we can't miss the Salvation Army bell ringers, or the donation drop off spots for winter coats. Then, there are the food drives.

Ah, the food drives. The grocery store has 'em. The discount store has 'em. Even the schools and the religious ed classes have 'em. It's a good thing, teaching children to be generous, no?

It started with my son's class. The high school was having a food drive contest, and the first period class that brought the most cans, boxes, and sundry packages would win a pizza party.

Nothing like generous motives, eh?

My son, enthusiastic to do his share, spent a weekend asking me to take him to Wal-Mart so he could spend an allowance on generic ramen to bring to school. Yes, ramen. The one food that the hungry probably can afford. And if I couldn't bring him, could I at least let him bring something to school from our pantry? Anyone who didn't bring something would not be allowed to participate in the pizza party, should his class win.

Again, nothing like generous motives.

But it got me to thinking: how many poor families are there who can't afford to give allowances to the kids. You know, the very kinds of families these food drives are created to help. They tend to go to public schools, like my kids. They tend to be pressured into participating in these food drives, giving away food from their own pantries, so that they won't be excluded from the rewards of giving. It seems a bit counterproductive to demand participation instead of merely requesting it, and to make those who are unable to spare any food feel ostracized.

Well, my son was fortunate, and had his allowance to spend. He brought his share of non-nutritive food to help the class effort, and although his class did not win, he felt good for having contributed.

The next day, another child was rooting through the pantry for food to bring to an elementary school food drive. It didn't much matter that my check was two weeks late, and I was wondering how I was going to make ends meet myself: the pressure to give generously was intense. How could I say no, and deny my youngest a good example? Sensing a teaching opportunity, I took out one of the more expensive cans from the pantry and suggested it, since it was something that the needy might not be able to afford for themselves. I tossed in a few cans of soup for good measure.

Heaving a sigh of relief, I relaxed. My check would arrive any day, and we still had enough food to keep our rather sizeable family running till it did. That was when a third child came asking for food for another school food drive. That evening, the youngest came back for more, explaining that her religious education class was having a drive. Then, another child came for more for her religious ed class. Each head of each drive had explained the importance of generosity and the stinginess of not sharing. We were down to giving spinach.

Needless to say, I agree with the motive of generosity, but I was less than pleased with how this motive was pursued by each institution as though it were the only institution seeking it. Much more, though, I was bothered as another more saddening thought occurred to me. I thought about all the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that churches and other benefactors offer the homeless and other hungry. The food drives, the free coats, and the holiday dinners are good, and very important... but we seem to forget that the hungry need food all year long. Poverty does not mean getting hungry just once a year.

And that's when it hit me, my own fault in the whole flurry of forced generosity. We -- I -- need to be generous all year long, not just when we are smitten with the self-warmth of feeling generous. If we gave in the Biblical spirit of secret alms, and did so all year long, perhaps the schools wouldn't need to offer pizza parties to collect enough ramen noodles to feed the hungry for a month. It seems rather pathetic that they have to offer "good" food as a reward for bringing paltry food for those in genuine need.

Christmas may be over, but New Years is right around the corner. My friends, as we make our New Years resolutions, let us keep in mind the spirit of giving that kept us going for the past month. Now that we've given to our loved ones, and ourselves, let us remember all year long to be generous to those we do not know.